LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Citing Asian soybean rust and the rising level of expertise needed for consulting work, the Arkansas legislature has passed a law requiring licenses of for-fee agriculture consultants. Licensing through the Arkansas Plant Board will no longer be voluntary, as it has been since 1987.
“The Arkansas Agricultural Consultants Association (AACA) started looking at this almost five years ago,” said Claude Bonner, a former Extension employee now working as a consultant with Cotton Specialists of Arkansas. “We’d developed a fairly simple bill that required licensing and continuing education for for-fee consultants.”
Then, said Bonner, against labeling, Fury was sprayed on some 20,000 acres of Arkansas wheat. “When that situation broke out, the Plant Board got involved. They were looking at not only for-fee consultants but folks behind the counter at ag services, field men and manufacturer representatives. From our vantage point, it would have been difficult to carry out a program that comprehensive. It wasn’t practical.”
During the last session of the Arkansas legislature (which meets every two years), legislative jostling on the matter went on for months.
“A bunch of groups — including the aerial applicators — got involved, but it never really came to a head. The licensing issue was effectively shelved until the current session.”
Over the last couple of years, three consultant groups — Certified Crop Advisors, National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants and the aforementioned AACA — “have worked together to gather consensus and draft a bill. Ultimately, the bill went through the legislature and was signed by the governor. It’s law now, and I’m glad — it was time for us to formalize our business.”
The Plant Board is still in the process of developing many of the regulations under the law. But some things are set. Most important for consultants at this moment, said Bonner, is to take advantage of the grandfathering clause.
“Most consultants can be grandfathered into a license if they apply within the next year. That’s one reason I’m talking about this now: if you’re going to be a for-fee consultant, you need to take care of all your paperwork.”
During the current one-year grace period, for-fee consultants can be licensed without examination. For the four years following, there will be an education requirement of two years of college with nine hours of specific agricultural requirements or three years of crop-related experience for licensing.
After five years, licensing will require either a degree in an agricultural discipline or seven continuous years of working under a licensed consultant.
Starting this year, there will be a continuing education requirement — somewhere between 20 and 40 hours of classes.
“Five or 10 years from now,” said Bonner, “we’re going to have consultants coming into the business with better education. That should help reduce any problems with regulations and rules with labeling.”
How did this move through the legislature? “It was quite an education for those of us working with it. After we developed a grasp on how things worked, it moved through rather smoothly. We didn’t have a dissenting vote — from the House ag committee through the full House and Senate. That pleased us because we worked so hard to get it together.”
Was there pressure to get a law passed? “Yes, there were pressures — areas of concern — from several angles,” said Bonner. “We wanted to get this done with maximum input from consultants. If we didn’t handle it, someone else would have. We don’t know what EPA might decide to do. We don’t know how things would shake out in the case of another Fury-type incident. So we needed to have something in place quickly.”
Also, looking to the future, “it’s obvious that the technical expertise available to growers will continue to decline. Extension doesn’t have nearly the ability it once did to provide in-field information. Unfortunately, we think their staffs will continue to decline.”
And the same is happening at the retail level. “There are fewer outlets and fewer manufacturer reps out there as well. The technically competent base of people growers can turn to is a shrinking pool. We feel the risk to individuals — because of higher input costs per acre and rapidly increasing farm sizes — is growing. Growers will need more good help and advice.
“Because of that, we believe the base providing that help must be more technically competent. Problems will still arise, but the potential for problems should be reduced if we have a better-educated work force.”
Bonner said the new law deals with consultant education and licensing only. It does, however, offer peripheral benefits as well. “It helps us get a handle on who is actually consulting. Because the old licensing program was voluntary, we have no idea how many for-fee consultants there are. A number that’s commonly thrown out is between 400 and 500 individuals.”